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Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

PUBLISHED: 15:49 20 October 2010 | UPDATED: 18:02 20 February 2013

Deborah with Sophy at the Countryside March in 1997.

Deborah with Sophy at the Countryside March in 1997.

Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and the last of the Mitford sisters, has finally penned her memories. Katie Jarvis went to meet her in Swinbrook, the Oxfordshire village where she grew up

Taking tea with Hitler



Beautiful manners are mostly out of vogue. Rather non-U. So much so that you almost forget what its like to be on the receiving end of them.


How kind of you to come all this way to see me, Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire says, warmly and sincerely, of my 40-minute jaunt down the road to the Cotswold village of Swinbrook making no mention of the fact that she has motored from her home in Derbyshire, a dusty two hours away.


Its so nice of you to be interested.


Now there are true manners for you: designed to make the recipient feel like the most important person in the world (and reminiscent of my former Latin tutor who once sternly informed me, Ladies are very well or dead.) Manners from a different age, instilled by uniformed nannies and upright spinster governesses; shrouded from current view behind the ghostly pall of the second world war.


Am I interested? In an icon of the 20th century? Someone who had tea with Hitler; who counted among her friends such luminaries as the capricious Evelyn Waugh (either malevolently tricky or magnanimously clever, depending on his drink level); whom Jack Kennedy would telephone at 3am for an off-the-cuff chat; who helped breathe life back into an unconscious, flat-lining Chatsworth when countless others might have turned their backs and left it to die...


Interested? Yes, Im interested, I say to this lady with the Mitford-blue eyes.



*********




Deborah Devonshire cuts an almost regal figure as she carefully makes her way through the Swan at Swinbrook: upright and immaculately dressed in blue and white. Fellow diners might not associate her, at 90, with the photographs of the six stunning Mitford sisters that light up the pub wall over the fireplace. Nor might they connect her with the scandals associated with those same sisters - scandals that mesmerised the 20th century. But she still somehow draws their eyes.


We head out of the back to chat in one of the guest bedrooms, newly converted from outbuildings in the stable yard. These rooms have been stylishly done, thanks to the guiding hand of Nicola Orr-Ewing, who runs the Swan with husband, Archie.


Isnt she wonderful? Debo asks, making sure I notice and admire every detail of the interior design. So very clever.


This is the village where Debo grew up. Indeed, this is Debos pub one of the bedrooms is named in her honour the residue of a large estate that once belonged to her father, the terrifyingly idiosyncratic Lord Redesdale or Farve, as he was known to his children. Today, the Swans welcoming dining room serves gourmet delights such as Upton loin of roe deer carpaccio. Its a far cry from the dining room of Swinbrook House in the Mitfords time when Farve would offer horrified guests some pigs thinkers for breakfast at 8am sharp; or roar Havent these people homes to go to? across the table, if he thought visitors had outstayed their welcome.


Not a figure you could picture slotting seamlessly into 21st century life.


Ah, says Debo, with an expression of delicious enjoyment. I would have loved to have seen my father pitted against first the planners, and then the health and safety people. It would have been rich, wouldnt it! Hed have seen them off.


And then those health visitor people... What are they called? Social workers! If they had come to our house, they would have been horrified.


Shes not wrong, of course. As even the first few pages of her delightful, unput-down-able memoirs - Wait For Me demonstrate, the Mitfords eccentrically aristocratic household would undoubtedly be the subject of court orders galore in todays climate. Tom, the only Mitford son killed in the second world war - was sent to Eton. But the girls, despite various desperate pleadings, were mostly denied a school education. Instead, they were taught by their mother and a series of governesses (who seemed regularly to flee the household (and not without cause)), interspersed with days out hunting and roaming the Cotswold countryside.


The sisters should have been destined for a life of anonymous sobriety but, of course, they were having none of that. The eldest, Nancy, became a writer, whose most celebrated books drew on her extraordinary childhood and singular family for inspiration. Then there was Pam, the quiet one, followed by the beautiful Diana who left her husband, the fabulously rich Bryan Guinness by whom she had two children, for the married philanderer and notorious fascist Oswald Mosley. There was Unity, a friend and deep admirer of Hitler: so distraught was she at the outbreak of the war that she tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head in a German park. Then Jessica, the communist and civil rights activist; and finally Debo herself 16 years younger than Nancy - who married Andrew Cavendish and became Duchess of Devonshire, mistress of Chatsworth House.


Not bad going for one family.


My mother used to say, Whenever I see Peers Daughter on the headline of the Evening Standard, I know its one of you children! Debo says. But shed be roaring with laughter at the same time. A sort of Oh heavens! Not again! What is it this time?


Debo is no stranger to writing: there have, in the past, been books about Chatsworth, a cookbook, edited letters, and charming jottings. But never a fully fledged autobiography. So why now?


Well, she says carefully, because three or four other people were suggesting that theyd like to do it and I really thought I didnt want anybody else messing about with papers and all the rest of it; so Id do it myself. And I did.


Did she enjoy it?


I loved it. When youre my age, the early part of life is so vivid, and the middle part is a huge bit of mist... Its funny, isnt it?


The story, inevitably, begins with Debos own birth in 1920 to parents who had wanted a big family of boys. The disappointment of a sixth daughter made the occasion more funereal than natal. Years later Mabel, our parlourmaid, told me, I knew what it was by your fathers face. ...all agreed that no one, except Nanny, looked at me till I was three months old and then were not especially pleased by what they saw.


The stories she tells about her family are laugh-out-loud funny. There was her grandfather, who planned to shut up house and live in China. On the day of departure, the trunks were loaded into the growler that would take him and his daughter to the station to catch the boat train; but then the weather turned. Its raining, he announced. We wont go.


There were her mothers attempts, when newly married, to educate her husband in literary classics. She decided to read him Tess of the dUrbervilles because she thought he would enjoy its descriptions of farm and heath land. When she got to the sad part, Debo writes, my father started crying. Oh, darling, dont cry, its only a story. WHAT, said my father, his sorrow turning to rage, do you mean to say the damn feller made it up?


Does Debo think the sisters unconventional background helped fashion them into the mould-breakers they were to become?


I wonder if it did, she muses. You see most of them wanted to get away from here and from all the things I loved so much. They wanted to go to London. But in those days, people like my sisters did not leave home and have a flat of their own; most were at home with nothing to do because they had no housekeeping to do my mother did all that and they were bored stiff. Nancy used to go for long, long stays with friends in Scotland and in England, and she was always a welcome guest; but it wasnt her own, you know. That was the difference between then and now. It took the war to get that straightened; if you call it straightened.


On the other hand, she says, with intense loyalty, they behaved perfectly well, as far as Im concerned, all the way.


Its hard to fathom exactly what she means by that. Certainly, Debo herself has been the model of propriety all her life; but the same could not be said of all her siblings. Diana caused a huge scandal when she ran off with Mosley, who was still married at the time not least because of his far-right views which she herself adopted.


Unity was also highly sympathetic to the fascist cause and spent much of the run-up to the war in Germany, often meeting up with Hitler who became a personal friend. Indeed, during a visit, Debo, Unity and their mother were invited to have tea with the Fuhrer.


Was he a charismatic figure?


Not to me at all. But, you know, we were sitting in quite a small room there was only my mother, my sister Unity, myself and him nobody else at all. There was no guard; nothing. He twice rang the bell for somebody to come I think he wanted some more tea - and nobody came. First time, I was rather surprised. Second time, I was absolutely astonished. There he was, head of state, and it wasnt early on in the time: it was 1937. I thought that completely extraordinary.


Then, when we were going to wash up - because wed had a long journey and we were very dusty in an open car - we found the towels had got AH embroidered on them. That somehow brought it back to a perfectly ordinary human being. Heaps of people have things embroidered on their kits, dont they?


Hitler was, at best, a passing acquaintance. But the names of close friends also flow through the book in a fascinating roll call of talent: Cyril Connolly, James Lees-Milne, the Churchills, Macmillan (Uncle Harold), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lucian Freud, Jack Kennedy whose presidential inauguration she attended (I didnt want to go. There were engagements I was looking forward to at home, including the last shoot of the season) as well as his funeral and so it goes on. While shes elucidating, shes also discreet.


Well, she says disapprovingly, people are only interested now, as far as I can see, in sex and money and probably a few other very unpleasant things. The trouble is that its all transient, those things theyre interested in; but some of the real things are not. Money was never spoken of when I was a child. Nor was illness.


Shes not so sparing of herself, however. While undoubtedly there are measures of self-protection, she talks movingly of difficult times: her late husbands battle with alcoholism (which he overcame); of losing three best friends in the war. Somebody once came to interview me and, after hearing all that, she said, Did the war have any effect on you? It was quite an odd thing to say. I dont think shed been listening at all.


And, particularly, of the loss of three of her six children. The first, Mark, arrived more than two months prematurely. The famous gynaecologist who attended gave her stomach a rough push after the birth and said abruptly, You dont expect the baby to live, do you?


She and her husband, Andrew, settled in the village of Edensor, never expecting to inherit Chatsworth. But when Andrews brother Billy Hartington married to Kennedys sister Kathleen was killed in the war, Andrew unexpectedly became heir to the dukedom. It was, in many ways, a poisoned chalice. His father, the 10th Duke, died 14 weeks short of exemption from death duties, leaving the couple with millions of pounds to hand over to the treasury. The big house itself had been used as a school during the war, before being left empty. Debo and Andrew would wander round its eerily vacant expanses during walks.


It was strange. All the clocks would strike bang on 12 or whatever time it was - because the house carpenters were still there. It was also infinitely depressing because it was very grubby and you werent allowed to do any interior decorating, as they call it now.


At the time, the world wasnt particular about saving these behemoths and the couple faced an uphill struggle to raise the money they owed and to restore the property. Ive lived long enough to see a complete reversal of the attitude to big houses, Debo says. The change perhaps came about because of that extraordinary exhibition at the V&A years and years ago [in 1974], called The Destruction of the Country House. You entered it to the sound of glass breaking and down went the houses. Hundreds of them. Before then, nobody thought that anyone would want to live in places like that.


I inherited the work of five huge houses Chatsworth, Compton Place at Eastbourne, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Bolton Hall in Yorkshire, and Lismore Castle in County Waterford. When I had to fill in a form once, they asked my occupation and I put housewife.


She blossoms when she speaks about Chatsworth, the house she nurtured and loved, alongside Andrew, for more than half a century. Eighteen months after he died, aged 84, she moved out to make way for the next generation her son Stoker and his wife, Amanda. Her home is now once again in the nearby village of Edensor.


Though shes never been on any committees or held any official position in relation to the house or its trust, shes worked tirelessly. Indeed, Debo was the brains behind much of the estates successful enterprise, including the farm shop. I won out against the wishes of the estate office battled on for three years before we got planning permission to open it. People told me, Its on a side road; nobody will go to it, but I knew it would work. When I left Chatsworth, it was turning over 5.5 million, and Im sure its more now because the staff are so wonderful no other reason.


Shes also dedicated to the estate farmyard, where city children come to learn about the land. I love going there; I was there yesterday. I asked the person who runs it who is just perfect if I could have two gallons of fresh milk to make some Devonshire cream.


Its not treated in any way, this milk, but I can eat it and I can give it to my guests. But because its not treated, youre not allowed to sell it.


She looks heavenward. Not allowed, she repeats, despairingly. Absolutely ridiculous.


Her father, it goes without saying, would wholeheartedly agree.



Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister is published by John Murray, priced 20. Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, will be speaking at Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday, October 16 at 4pm; 0844 576 7979; cheltenhamfestivals.com

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